BooksWeekend

It’s Only Rock’n’Roll, But They Like It: New Books from Robert Christgau and Jessica Hopper

Jessica Hopper, senior editor of the online music magazine Pitchfork (photo by David Sampson)

Recently, Time Out New York’s “Word on the Street” column offered this overheard snippet: “She’s never had sex and she doesn’t do drugs but she really loves rock’n’roll.”

Besides that chaste music fan, does anybody listen to “rock’n’roll” anymore — in a conscious manner, that is, with awareness of the genre per se? After decades of proliferating genres — disco; punk; new wave; techno and its offshoots; emo; alternative; and, everywhere, rap, rap, rap — and the advent of user-controlled, song-by-song, customized-playlist streaming that has displaced the thematically cohesive, artist-conceived album (or, for that matter, the authority of radio’s Top 40 countdown), does it matter anymore what category or label marketers and critics slap on a record?

For the music critics Robert Christgau, 73, the New York-based, self-styled “Dean of American Rock Critics,” and for Jessica Hopper, 38, the Chicago-based senior editor of the online music magazine Pitchfork and editor-in-chief of the print quarterly, The Pitchfork Review, rock, however multifaceted, is still a genre with significant sound-, attitude- and character-defining attributes. In their respective new books, it’s clear that a notion of what rock is and how it sounds is still a touchstone for their examination of the musical expressions within, around and related to it.

Christgau helped give birth to rock criticism in the 1960s. His new memoir, Going Into the City: Portrait of A Critic as a Young Man (HarperCollins), offers detailed recollections of his childhood and his emergence as the de facto dean of his métier. Hopper’s cheekily titled The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic (Featherproof Books) owes much to the doors Christgau opened — and through which he and his confrères dared to look with critical seriousness at a popular-culture phenomenon that highbrows ignored or dismissed. As Hopper’s book title suggests, her writing is rooted in a woman’s point of view: specifically, it elaborates a feminist critique of rock and its makers, most of whom, most of the time, have been male.

Robert Christgau, the self-styled “Dean of American Rock Critics” (photo by Nina Christgau)

Never mind the generation gap that separates them; critics like Christgau and Hopper routinely analyze an array of related cultural, social, historical, and economic forces in their efforts to figure out rock’s meanings, values, and impacts in and on the broader cultures and societies from which it emerges. It’s a way of thinking about forms of artistic expression that seems natural today, but which writers like the late Ellen Willis (1941–2006), Christgau’s erstwhile intellectual and romantic partner, Christgau himself, and other critics of his generation first applied to rock.

With this in mind, Christgau refers in his book to “contingency,” which, he writes, “might be defined as everything depending on everything else in a process that never ends.” Recognition of that all-around thematic connectivity — of the fact that no art form emerges in or from a vacuum — has long informed Christgau’s thinking and writing. In different ways, it also characterized that of his generational peers (Willis and such fellow rock critics as Greil Marcus and Lester Bangs, who wrote for Rolling Stone, John Rockwell, who wrote for The New York Times, or Dave Marsh, who wrote for Creem). This approach continues to inform the work of their successors today.

“My working assumption as a critic is that the raw enjoyment of works of art shouldn’t require research, but I know that’s a crude rule,” Christgau writes. He also notes that a “single acute review can render a recalcitrant work intelligible,” and that providing “auxiliary information” about it “enhances appreciation.”

Christgau’s memoir is a Bildungsroman without the fictional narrative, a story of an intellectually inquisitive child who was brought up in Queens as — and this might surprise readers who are mostly familiar with his “Consumer Guide” record reviews in the Village Voice — a born-again Christian in a Protestant, German-American family (his mother had converted from Roman Catholicism).

As a youth he was a voracious reader, baseball-stats nerd and budding music fan, who in the mid-1950s lapped up the DJ Alan Freed’s rock’n’roll radio program and as a high schooler enjoyed “going into the city” with a buddy. For the teenagers, the journey from outer-borough Queens to Manhattan was a big one both geographically and conceptually. They headed to Times Square to buy used jukebox records at three for a dollar.

To date, Christgau has reviewed nearly 14,000 record albums. The first one he ever heard and examined was his parents’ 78 r.p.m., multi-disc cast recording of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, which opened on Broadway in 1949. “Pop music is always about tunes….,” Christgau writes in Going Into the City. His memoir’s first long section recalls his childhood years and his intellectual-aesthetic coming of age. How his personal, critical outlook took shape early on is one of the most interesting components of this broader tale of a life actively and richly lived.

As an undergraduate at Dartmouth, where Christgau read widely and savored the poetry of e.e. cummings, Yeats and William Carlos Williams, he realized about his favorite poems that he “love[d] them not just as aesthetic structures” but also “as guides to life and contemplation.” Later, apparently, that pretty much turned out to be his perspective on rock’n’roll songs, too.

Rock may be a singularly potent form of popular music, but Christgau also recognizes “semipopular music,” which in the early 1970s he defined as “music that is appreciated — I use the term advisedly — for having all the earmarks of popular music except one: popularity.” As examples, he cites the music of the Flying Burrito Brothers (a band that was first active in the late 1960s and early 1970s) and the American, proto-punk Stooges, fronted by Iggy Pop. In time, Christgau notes, “semipopular music” led to what became known as “alternative rock.”

Christgau acknowledges that he has learned a lot about life, love and art and criticism in general from the literature (novels by Theodore Dreiser, Willa Cather and Christina Stead) and music he has admired (even today, he told me in an interview, he finds Johnny Griffin’s tenor sax solo on Thelonius Monk’s “In Walked Bud” sublime); from friends and colleagues like Willis, whom he describes as one of the sharpest, most original thinkers he ever knew; and from his wife, the writer Carola Dibbell. (Dibbell’s novel, The Only Ones, was published this year by Two Dollar Radio.)

Christgau, who wrote for Esquire, Newsday, Rolling Stone, Creem and other publications, now teaches the course “Artists & Audiences” at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. His personal website offers an archive of his writings, and recently “Expert Witness,” a new incarnation of his album-rating “Consumer Guide” column, made its debut in noisey, Vice’s online music magazine. During his tenure as the Village Voice’s music editor, which ended in 2006, Christgau first published or mentored numerous younger music critics, including Greg Tate and Nelson George, who went on to become leading commentators on rap and other musical forms developed by African-American artists.

Christgau also brought on board young female critics. Many of these contributors to the Voice’s pages, including Jessica Hopper, took part in its annual, Christgau-conceived “Pazz & Jop” poll, which rated a year’s worth of recordings.

Jessica HopperRecently, by telephone, Hopper said, “I’ve always been sensitive to the position of young women who have loved rock music but whose opinions about it have been marginalized.” Hopper grew up in Minneapolis, founded the music fanzine Hit It Or Quit It in 1991 and wrote for the Chicago-based ’zine Punk Planet, which folded in 2007. The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic includes some of her writings for those publications, as well as for SPIN, the Chicago Reader and others. In her book, she acknowledges such trail-blazing female rock-critic predecessors as Willis (whose 1967 essay about Bob Dylan for Commentary, later republished in a revised version in the short-lived Cheetah, is widely regarded as the first of its kind about a major pop-music figure) and Lillian Roxon (1932-1973), whose Rock Encyclopedia was published in 1969. She cites Caroline Coon’s 1988: The New Wave Punk Rock Explosion (1977) and Rock She Wrote (1995), a landmark anthology of female rock critics’ writings edited by Evelyn McDonnell and Ann Powers.

The first-person reportage and subjective scene-setting that come naturally to Hopper are legacies of the “new journalism” that was in vogue when Christgau was surfacing as a young critical writer decades ago. Writing about dancing alone to a Van Morrison album “in pitch-dark rooms…illuminated exclusively by the tiny light of the turntable,” she is unabashedly all emotion. Her trip? It’s one through the music that, ideally, if there’s a pay-off to be had, will yield both truth and “rapture.” “And oh what motherfucking deliverance when you find it!” Hopper writes, exuding after-midnight euphoria. This is a woman who really digs her music.

In fact, some of the most resonant pieces in her book are not the ones in which she finds herself dodging spitballs in a mosh pit or stumbling out into early-morning streets to the “sound of drunken Midwestern girls,” after having witnessed a “ladies’ mud-wrestling” night in an abandoned warehouse, but rather those in which she takes a few steps back and looks more dispassionately at her subjects.

For example, her short text “Gaga Takes a Trip,” from Nashville Scene (2011), analyzes the look and meanings of a paparazzo’s news photo of Lady Gaga arriving at Los Angeles International Airport “in full pop regalia,” “teas[ing] out the fan fantasy of the pop star by never dropping the act,” like “a superhero, never appearing out of uniform.” Zeroing in with a nuanced reading of the flamboyant singer’s acutely balanced sense of “irony and self-possession” and comparing her very essence as a “White Swan” with that of “out-of-control Britney Spears’ Black Swan,” Hopper nails her subject-prey. “Lady Gaga shows that she understands the only real rule of popular entertainment,” she writes. “Give the people what they want.”

That same critical acumen turns up in Hopper’s sharp takes on rock stars’ personas and image-making (Taylor Swift, Lana Del Rey, Bruce Springsteen, et al.), and on certain rockers’ images and messages that have become canonized or calcified over time. Referring to the male-centered songs of emo artists, Led Zeppelin and post-punk bands, she rhetorically asks her audience, “So you accept the sexism and phallocentricity of the last few decades of popular music and in your punk-rock community as just how it is? […] Can you ignore the marginalization of women’s lives on the records that line your record shelves in hopes that feigned ignorance will bridge the gulf […]?”

In our phone interview, regarding the sexism and even misogyny some rock music has long and irrefutably expressed, Hopper said, “My big question becomes: How much of this can I take or excuse because I like music?” We referred to the new N.W.A. biopic, Straight Outta Compton, which has taken critical heat for soft-pedaling its rapper subjects’ well-known sexist pronouncements and actions in their music and media-reported personal lives. Hopper added, “People might respond to a song, but how much does that song affect how they are in the world? Does it make certain listeners think, ‘We can only occupy a certain place within this music’? If you look at this matter honestly, this is something you can’t ignore.”

Hopper’s writings are neither screeds nor polemics. At their most urgent, they constitute an intelligent, passionate cri de coeur for a more considerate, more empathetic music. Sometimes she finds it, as she did with a sense of relief, back in the grunge years of her youth, after having wasted too much energy trying to impress Nirvana-besotted boys. In “Louder Than Love: My Teen Grunge Poserdom” (2005), she remembers discovering the Olympia, Washingon-born riot grrrl band Bikini Kill. Hopper writes that its singer, Kathleen Hanna, sounded a “rebel yell” that “posted the bail from my teen grunge prison; I had found music that meant everything to me.”

That rock’n’roll has never stopped meaning so much to critics like Christgau and Hopper is the emphatic message of both their books. That they and their younger peers continue mining it for meaning — often coming up with insightful new ways in which to hear it and learn from it — is a testament to rock’s durability and power, in all its permutations.

Going Into the City: Portrait of A Critic as a Young Man (2015) is published by HarperCollins and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic (2015)is published by Featherproof Books and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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